The NBA's Plan to Go Beyond the Anthem

Colin Kaepernick has captivated a nation. But in a B/R Mag exclusive, NBA stars reveal their own plans for social-justice action—not protest

By Howard Beck and Jonathan Abrams

October 24, 2016

Bleacher Report

Before the ball is tipped Tuesday night in Cleveland, heralding the start of a new NBA season, the lights will go down, the national anthem will begin and 30 players will stand quietly, in two orderly rows.

They might lock arms in solidarity. But there will likely be no gestures of protest—no knees taken, no fists raised.

While the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick and other athletes are using the national anthem to make a stand for social justice, NBA players are already pursuing a different path: action over symbolism.

“I’m past the gestures,” New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony told B/R Mag. “I’m past that. It’s all about creating things now and putting things in motion. So, that’s what I’m on. I’m trying to get guys on board with that and help them understand that—enough of the gesturing and talking and all of that stuff—we need to start putting things in place.”

The United States has been roiled by police killings of unarmed black men, prompting a new wave of athlete activism, culminating this fall in Kaepernick’s controversial anthem protest. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback has been sitting or kneeling for the anthem since August, inspiring athletes across the nation to do the same. Even some singers have taken a knee as they perform “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But in more than a dozen interviews with B/R Mag over the past two weeks, a range of NBA figures—including two of the league’s biggest stars, a Hall of Famer, a former champion and the commissioner—laid out a different vision for how a predominantly black league, with a long tradition of social activism, will be part of the movement. Players are still speaking out, but they are eschewing silent protest in favor of actively engaging with law enforcement, civic leaders, children and their communities—demanding change over symbolism because, as Memphis Grizzlies star Mike Conley Jr. said, “Silence isn't going to change anything.”

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Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James (left to right) speak on stage at the ESPY Awards at the Microsoft Theater July 13, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Images)

The foundations were laid with a powerful speech—focused squarely on police killings—by Anthony and fellow superstars LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade at the ESPYs in July. The NBA’s action will continue this season, at community centers and neighborhood gyms, with players and cops and kids getting together to trade stories and jump shots—to forge a dialogue, to channel the outrage into something constructive.

There remains value to the anthem protests, several players said. But no one who spoke to B/R Mag indicated NBA players would follow suit. In the preseason, many NBA players instead chose to lock arms during the anthem—a display of awareness and togetherness, not protest.

“He’s done it,” Anthony said of Kaepernick. “He was courageous enough to do that. He created that. He created the kneeling and that protest. And people fell in line with that. Some people supported it. Some people didn’t. But at the end of the day, and I’m not taking nothing away from him...I just don’t think the gesturing is creating anything. I think it’s bringing awareness, but I think doing stuff and creating awareness in the communities [is more effective].”

That is also the approach from the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association, which last month sent a joint letter to players, pledging meaningful action to address “recent tragedies and social unrest.”

In the last few months, without fanfare or much media coverage, teams have sprung into action—beginning to help bridge the divide between police and communities across the country:

  • The Chicago Bulls held a basketball tournament and panel between law enforcement and a mentoring agency.
  • Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins hosted an event in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, that featured police and community leaders.
  • Wade convened a six-mile unity bike ride through Miami with police officers.
  • David Fizdale, the new head coach in Memphis, announced the revival of the city’s Police Athletic League, which tutors law enforcement officers to become coaches of youth teams. His efforts were boosted by a $1 million pledge by his point guard Conley to the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation—a donation matched by Grizzlies owner Robert Pera and his local partners.
  • This week, the New Orleans Pelicans brought teens into their practice facility for a forum on race and police relationships.
  • And on Saturdays next month, the Lakers will invite law enforcement and children to play basketball at the team’s practice facility.

Similar efforts are underway across the country, throughout the league.

It’s the players who sparked the movement, said Commissioner Adam Silver, who cited the ESPYs speech by Anthony and friends.

“These guys put themselves in a leadership position,” Silver told B/R Mag. “So when they see sort of symbolic gestures by athletes in other sports, and not to devalue them in any way, I think their view is: We’ve moved past that stage already. … We will be judged by the substantive actions we’re taking in our communities.”

To that end, the NBA will be conducting about six official events each month, focused on areas such as economic empowerment, mentoring, racial issues and police-community relations.

“It’s such a huge issue,” Miami Heat guard Wayne Ellington said. “Not just gun violence, but what’s going on in the inner-city communities, what’s going on with police. Kaepernick is taking a stand and doing what he wants to do, and there are people that are following him. We’re trying to choose a new president. But there’s so much going on in the community right now. There’s so much in America that’s going on. We need to come together. We need to unite as people. We need to make a change for the better. There’s a lot of negativity right now.”

Ellington’s father, Wayne Ellington Sr., was murdered two years ago. Ellington has sought to turn the tragedy into a positive by hosting town forums, mentoring youth and helping to prevent gun violence.

Will Barton wears a Black History Month warm-up shirt as he is introduced before a game against the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 5, 2016, at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. (Getty Images)

Denver’s Will Barton, like Anthony, was moved to take action in his hometown of Baltimore after the controversial death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who was fatally injured while in police custody.

“It affected me in a major way,” Barton said. “I actually went to the funeral to pay my respects. It just put me in a bad place to see that still happening in the country I live in and the community where I'm from, and it's just like, Wow. This is still happening. It’s just sad.”

Barton said he spends as much time in Baltimore as he can, advising kids who are growing up amid the same challenging circumstances he once faced.

These are the connections the NBA hopes to foster through its Building Bridges Through Basketball initiative, which brings together players, police, community leaders and kids.

For the Nets’ Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who took part in an event this month in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, the Bridges program provided a chance to teach kids the best way to deal with law enforcement—a lesson Hollis-Jefferson himself needed as a teenager.

A rash of violent crime in Hollis-Jefferson’s hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania, prompted authorities there to impose a 9 p.m. curfew. As Hollis-Jefferson and a friend walked home from the basketball court one night, just a few minutes after curfew, they were stopped by a police officer.

Feeling he had done nothing wrong—his home was just around the corner—Hollis-Jefferson struck a defiant, angry tone. “The bark side,” he called it.

“When you’re nervous and scared and your defense side kicks on, it’s like you gotta pick a way to go,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “It was scary, but my adrenaline was rushing, so I wasn’t really thinking about the consequences.

“I was young. I have a lot of pride; I’m from a tough neighborhood.”

Looking back, and given the spate of police killings of young black men across the country, Hollis-Jefferson shudders a bit. His standoff, at least, ended peacefully.

The Bridges event—which included members of the Nets and Knicks, WNBA star Swin Cash and local police officers—gave Hollis-Jefferson a chance to warn kids not to make the same mistake he did. He stopped short of saying these events could provide a solution.

“Solution—that’s kind of like solving a problem fully,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “So, I don’t know if we’ll ever solve anything 100 percent. But as far as like decreasing it, yeah. I think it’s a big step forward.”

There has been a growing social consciousness throughout NBA locker rooms since well before the public awakening reached professional football. Four years ago, the Miami Heat, then powered by James and Wade, wore hoodies in a team photograph, in support of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who had been shot and killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator. In 2014, a number of players—including James, Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose—donned “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts for pregame warm-ups in support of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died after an NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold.

“It’s interesting now that the NFL is getting all the coverage, but the NBA has been doing this for a long time,” said former Heat forward Shane Battier, who missed the hoodie photo but supported his team’s efforts.

In Chicago, the push began four or five years ago, with a series of discussions between players and team management, said Michael Reinsdorf, the Bulls president and CEO. Those talks resulted in four “pillars” for public service: youth education, youth health and wellness, military and first-responder support and violence prevention.

Bulls star Jimmy Butler has been active in a local mentoring program. Rajon Rondo, who joined the team in July, immediately connected with a group of disadvantaged youth, recently hosting them at a preseason game.

Today’s players “understand the power of sport,” Reinsdorf said, and that “you have an obligation to give back to the fans who are always so supportive of what you do on the court.”

"Each time something tragic happens, whether it's to the police or to an innocent civilian, it's something that hurts you, and silence isn't going to change anything."

— Mike Conley Jr.

Though there has been no discussion of the anthem, Reinsdorf said, “Obviously, we’re not going to stop anyone from trying to voice” their opinion. But the Bulls’ emphasis is on constructive action.

In prior years, most professional athletes appeared distant and fractured from their hometown communities. They shielded their public image and protected their multimillion-dollar endorsements. Throughout his career, Michael Jordan, to many the greatest who ever played the game, had done the same. But James, Wade and others have helped bring athletes into a confident new era of social activity.

“Those guys just had an innate feeling to step forward,” Fizdale said of the 2012 Heat team, for which he was an assistant coach. “They saw themselves in Trayvon Martin. They knew at the time that everyone had their eyes on us and they said, ‘Let’s make sure we’re not just using this platform for endorsements or attention from an entertainment standpoint, but let’s use it in a way where we start getting the word out about things that are really impactful.’”

Growing up in inner Los Angeles, Fizdale lost his grandfather to gun violence and witnessed the Rodney King riots up close. He remembers being pulled over by police more times than he can count. In his role as the Grizzlies head coach he sees a chance to make a greater impact.

Fizdale sought advice from Memphis community leaders shortly after he took the job, which led him to revive the Police Athletic League.

“Maybe you can't save every kid, but man, just saving one is enough,” Fizdale said.

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Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale directs players during the first half of a preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers Oct. 11, 2016, in Memphis, Tennessee. (AP Images)

In Memphis, Fizdale landed a roster already heavily involved in the community, paced by veterans like Conley, Tony Allen and Zach Randolph. He counsels his team: “Basketball’s your profession, but you’re much, much, much more. Don’t let them just tell you to, ‘Shut up and go play.’”

At Fizdale’s invitation, the president of the National Civil Rights Museum, Terri Lee Freeman, visited the team during the preseason and relayed the story of Selma, the Alabama city that hosted civil rights protests in 1965 that helped spark the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Fizdale and his staff then ensured all of their players would be able to vote in the presidential election. “It was somewhat shocking to me how many of them hadn’t registered,” he said. “But at the same time, it made me proud that I was a part of getting them to do it and making them aware of it and showing them that I care so much about them that it’s bigger than basketball for me.

“One day, hopefully they’ll be telling their kids the same thing.”

Conley had just realized the responsibility of becoming a father. His wife, Mary, gave birth to their first son over the summer. “You’re going to worry about your kid and you’re going to want them to grow up in a world that’s better than what we’re currently going through now and hope that what we’re doing now in the communities hopefully helps start that,” Conley said.

In July, Conley signed a new contract for five years and $152.6 million, the largest deal in league history—and immediately announced the million-dollar donation to the Grizzlies foundation.

Conley had been quiet throughout much of his career, letting his play speak for itself. But his signing came just a few days after a gunman ambushed and killed four Dallas Police Department officers and a Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer, and he feels the urgency to speak and act now.

"People are going to feel uncomfortable and some feelings might get hurt, but that's what you need to happen for everybody to understand both sides."

— Harrison Barnes

“I think it had built up,” Conley told B/R Mag. “After each event, each time something tragic happens, whether it's to the police or to an innocent civilian, it's something that hurts you, and silence isn't going to change anything. I felt that was a perfect platform for me as an athlete. I knew that there would be a lot of attention being brought to me just because of the to kind of change the focus a little bit and raise that awareness to something that matters more to me than a contract and hopefully it’ll help spark something, help kind of piggyback off of what other guys have brought to the table over the summer.”

That is the type of advancement Fizdale hopes to see. He cited when Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich introduced members of the Innocence Project, a group that helps to right wrongful convictions, at this summer’s NBA Coaches Meetings. “Here’s Coach Pop,” Fizdale said. “He’s a white man and just a coach in San Antonio who cares, and maybe it’s not his family necessarily being impacted at the level that ours are, but he cares. He wants to do something to pitch in. For him to be that active about it and [Dallas Mavericks] Coach [Rick] Carlisle to be that passionate about these things, who am I not to step forward? And who are the young African-American players in this league, who are they to not step forward for their communities when you have people that are outside of their community doing it?”

It’s unclear how the NBA would respond if any players did decide to take a knee or otherwise protest the anthem. Earlier this year, some WNBA players were fined for wearing T-shirts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, though those fines were later rescinded. Some WNBA players also sat during the anthem without punishment from the league.

Silver declined to say how he would handle an anthem protest.

“I’d only say that we have a rule that requires players to stand respectfully for the anthem,” Silver said. “That is our rule. I’m not going to prejudge any player conduct. We’ll deal with any situations that present themselves. But I’ve been very clear that our expectation is that our players will stand for the anthem.”

Kathy Behrens, the NBA’s president of social responsibility and player programs, referred to anthem protests as “a little bit of a distraction, because we’re really focused on being meaningfully engaged in our communities.” 

One NBA player is staging an individual protest: the Golden State Warriors’ David West, who routinely stands two feet behind his teammates during the anthem. But as West explained to The Undefeated, he began this ritual several years ago, as a stance against inequality in general.

For now, it appears most NBA players prefer to make their stand off the court.

Shortly after his speech at the ESPYs, Anthony hosted a town hall forum in Los Angeles.

“I’m on the ground every day,” said Anthony, who frequently cites undereducation as a key issue. “I’m talking to people that’s in a position of power, the decision makers. Nobody really knows that, but I’m in there. I’m having these meetings, I’m talking to commissioners and police chiefs and everybody. It’s all about just kind of formulating something. If you want to tackle education, then you gotta really tackle education and figure out what you want to do with that. If it’s police brutality, you gotta figure out that too.”

"I'm just a bit more big on action. Once you get off your knee, like, 'OK, what are you doing?'"

— Charles Barkley

Harrison Barnes had newly signed his contract in Dallas when the gunman killed the five officers. Barnes took it upon himself to attend a memorial for the fallen. President Barack Obama spoke at the ceremony. 

“I think the president said it best,” Barnes said. “When a police officer sees a young black man, a kid on the street, he needs to see a son. And when a kid sees an officer, he can’t necessarily see a threat. He needs to see someone that's out to serve and protect. There’s a lot of disruption going on, a lot of people who are frustrated, but we still have to try and fight for change.”

As a member of USA Basketball, Barnes participated in the Los Angeles town hall forum Anthony spearheaded. Barnes hopes to bring a similar conversation to Dallas.

“I learned a lot just from being around that, and I think it was good for everybody involved, just because nothing is going to get fixed overnight," Barnes said. “It’s opening up that dialogue. It’s having real honest conversation where people are going to feel uncomfortable and some feelings might get hurt, but that’s what you need to happen for everybody to understand both sides.”

Charles Barkley, the Hall of Famer and broadcaster, amplified Anthony’s call to urgency—and dismissed the value of continued protests.

“Everybody’s engaged already,” Barkley said. “Everybody’s talking about it and know about it. I’m just a bit more big on action. Once you get off your knee, like, ‘OK, what are you doing?’ Because football season is going to be over soon. And the question is: How long do you do it? When is it over?’”

Barkley will soon host a six-episode series for TNT called The Race Card in which he will travel the country discussing barriers, identities and change. He has donated millions of dollars to historically black colleges and universities, and spent millions more on college scholarships for students at an all-black high school in his native Alabama.

“It’s too late for symbolic,” Barkley said. “You gotta actually do something.”

Howard Beck is a senior writer for B/R Mag and covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @HowardBeck.

Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.

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